Actions

Work Header

Forget The Present Tense

Chapter Text

It is not a dream, though that would by far be the easiest term to use. It is not a vision, with its suggestion of the ephemeral-- it happened
(is happening?)
somewhere. Yet it isn't the ghostly recording of some prior event, or even precognition. There's no iron-clad sense of inevitability; the feel of the events he witnesses is simply too fluid. During his first truncated stint in college, Erik took a class on comparative religion. The capacity for belief has always fascinated him, probably because he has so little of it himself. 'Occultation' was one of the terms frequently used, and that fits-- though still a bit imprecisely. Like a step outside of the linear, or backwards cryptograms whose intelligible forms exist only in the mirror.

 

For some Erik

(but not me, not me; I am Edie's son, Erik of 2065 Waterman Circle, White Plains, New York. I am Sergeant Lehnsherr of B Company, 59th Ordinance Brigade. I am, I am…)

this is happening. This is real life. Nothing is inevitable, because every moment is filled with the un-flexed muscle of free will. The man Erik observes-- whose shoulder he stands behind, a wraith-like and unheeded advisor-- is a man of great will. Driven. He does not automatically think of himself as Magneto just yet, even after a decade… but the hesitation is so slight as to be immaterial. He has passed through rings of fire innumerable; he is an exile from the lands of Sheol, where all

(the ashen hills are littered with teeth; the air reeks of burning hair, chemicals, and flesh fired to peeling)

dead things go.

This Lehnsherr-- 'Magneto'
(and what kind of a name is that?)
has a clarity of purpose Erik finds both enviable and repellant. This one has never questioned his duty, the ends necessary to protect his people and speak, with the certainty of his personal honor, the words 'Never Again'.

(Ah, but the means… Charles, my poor schatz-- for you. my conscience will never be clean.)

 

It is because of Charles that he can lift stadiums, when once a mere satellite or submarine eluded him. It is because Charles will not see, will not fight- would go so far as to hobble himself to better move within the enemy's oppressive world-- that Magneto must go to these lengths. Such is well, for there is little this Lehnsherr would not do to protect Charles and the people they were meant to lead together. He is relieved and glad he did not have to kill Mystique but, if that pivotal moment had not been mired by others, he never would have hesitated.

 

With anger, he takes hold of the steel girders and moorings and, with serene resolution, he moves the proverbial mountain. Despite the efficacy of Charles' compassionate ministrations, rage will always be an integral part of Magneto's power. He has plenty of it; the world feels wide and strange now, he has been caged too long and lost too much time. These humans

('Humans?' thinks Erik-- the real and true Erik who cannot move rail trains and submarines, or warp the magnetosphere and take to the sky. Who could not save anyone from ferric shards of bomb or metal bulk of automobile. 'Then, dear G-d, what does that make you?')

will be made to see the fragility of their institutions, their monuments that demand legitimacy. There's a fundamental satisfaction in watching them scatter. Knowing their Sentinels-- classically appropriated just like their white columns and obelisks-- have already been compromised.

(the jack boots, the marches; the thousands of people who cheered and shouted vitriol as one)

This time, the deck has already been stacked.

 

Charles is there, of course-- self-sacrificing Daniel amidst ungrateful lions. Does he think he'll be thanked or exempted for any of this? Tear down their clay gods and, like Nebuchadnezzar, they simply feed you to the fire. There is, Magneto knows, no rescuing G-d. If the throne of Creation is occupied at all, it is by a creature unmoved, deaf, and quite possibly insane. The professor-- who could wear the mantle of godhood so easily-- has taken back his power, but of course he'd never do it simply for his own sake. There's Hank trailing closely behind him

(and who are you, be-spectacled masquerade, to play the loyal second when I cannot?)

and the supposed prophet from the future. Well, Logan's lifeless, ashen wasteland will vanish from possibility soon enough.

 

Over the din of the crowd, Magneto hears Charles shout, "No, Erik!"

(Charles almost always says 'no, Erik', says 'stop' and 'wait' and 'don't kill them, that's enough'. I told you then, I all but invited you. Oh, liebling, you had an opportunity when I couldn't have disobeyed you if I tried.)

So too sounds a shout of negation from the Erik who watches, helpless, as a theater of political panic and upheaval unfolds. 'You are handing them ammunition!' he thinks, uncertain of this 'they' and why his powerful doppelganger should-- underneath all that rage and vengeance-- fear them so. 'You're falling into the trap, stepping into the shadowy off-the-rack outline of the boogeyman. All the more easy to hate and hunt you, my dear.'

 

It hardly matters. Magneto won't listen and, the worst part is, Erik isn't sure he would either. The century Lehnsherr comes from is run by the trundling machine of status quo, of evils both petty and profound, and it seems no one can stop it no matter how many people throw themselves onto the gears. If you could change the world, make the corrupt face their reflections of malicious piety… mightn't you also have the obligation, as with a murder witness, to intercede?
… and how on Earth could you resist?

 

Erik's older, darker reflection has no intention of shirking his duties. The only impulse he's working to resist is that of being too solicitous towards Charles. The professor is trapped beneath girder and pylon, but their crushing weight does not-- and will not-- touch him. He's pinned and out of the line of fire. Though the scholar himself will no doubt have plenty of new crimes to lay at his old friend's feet, but it's the best Magneto can do for now.

(If you do him any obvious favors, if you single him out in any way, they will know he's important. They-- the herders and the butchers and farmers of 'pigs'-- will use to him to get to you. He's strong, so much stronger than even you understand. He'll be alright.
--oh, please be alright--)

"Do what you were made for," he intones towards the Sentinels. Sergeant Lehnsherr, meanwhile, is reduced by the sheer lunacy of this vision to hysterical playground taunts. Loud within his enforced silence, he deprecates his doppelgänger's strategical errors, posing, cape, and anything else he can think of. Xavier's companion's are blurs of indigo and flashing bone claws, dodging blasts from the seemingly thoughtless robots.

('Robots,' Erik thinks, in a mixture of awed fear for his sanity and a healthy dose of disgusted practicality.)

Mercifully, the machines stay relatively clear of Charles' position. Magneto is in full stride, having summoned clumsy and out-dated cameras to record his pontification, but his phantom companion has shifted focus. Erik himself has no form, no sense of his own being, but he cannot move away from the strange-familiar body which seems to be his anchor. He is not present in any way that would allow him to run to Charles, no matter how much he wants to. He longs to put his knowledge of battlefield first aid to good use, or even simply shield the other man from Magneto's continuing destruction. In the true, overwrought style of Freudian dreams, Lehnsherr literally cannot stop himself. At this point, he wouldn't care to if he could, as long as Charles isn't added to the long list of people who-- despite all his raw devotion and training-- Erik has failed to save.

 

In his struggle to regain selfhood, he quickly looses track of the peripheral battle and the possibility of auxiliary threats. It's the dumb-ass 'fuzzy' mistake that ought to have been drilled out of him in Boot, but that's the bitch of PTSD sometimes. The triggers are old hat, ingrained responses to threat or combat. But the 'p' ought to be for 'panic' as well as 'post'. It can strip you of even the most sensible training, leaving you frozen in a way that makes you want to kick your own ass. It doesn't help that this situation is difficult to credit, no matter how vivid or seemingly coherent. Erik worked with remote recon robots as an EOD, and has the passing familiarity with drones that comes with any specialist position. The 'sentinels' he's watching now seem at once advanced and somehow quaint, particularly amidst the bulky cameras and sound equipment now smoldering beside the grandstands.

By now, Magneto has pulled a vault from the ground much as a horse doctor yanks a particularly nasty tooth. Its peeled shell in full of cowards; men with pretensions to glory, now huddled together in their dark, political-regulation suits. Just another kind of uniform. Beyond the crumbling platform and charred buntings, the silent Erik can see what looks like-- but absolutely cannot be-- the battered bulk of the White House. He's never been to DC, having seen the icon only as a prerequisite scale-model in every disaster film. It adds a cinematic, foreign feel to the scenery, like some kind of unholy CGI.

 

If only this sense of the surreal could extend to his emotions as well. His own reactions, and the alternating harmonies and discordances he senses from Magneto, are too potent for him to act as a passive witness. He doesn't readily recognize any of the men in the shadowy bunker, though he has no mind for them in truth. Instead, he's trying-- with all the success of a newly embodied infant-- to extricate himself from this other Lehnsherr. Let 'Magneto' go on about the consequences of fearing 'our gifts',

(and who, exactly, is this 'we'?)

preaching to men who will only react more violently each time he inspires fear. Being incorporeal should make it easier for Erik to steal away from his own monstrous shadow. He would be at Charles' side saying, 'Forgive me. I'm not him. Tell me where it hurts.'

 

Somehow, without any of the physicality necessary for such a thing, Erik suddenly feels the weight of a gaze intently upon him. The concept of being seen while he is so helpless to effect change inspires both terror and relief; a connection that hooks him through the gut and leads immediately back to the source, as if he's caught in a sniper's sights. His eyes scan the area directly ahead, a good way across the once manicured lawn, trying to isolate gradations of shadow amidst the rubble. The sense of dreamy incoherence flushes higher, into the realms of fevered somnolence, the moment he recognizes the figure. He can't help but think of Madga laughing beside him in the darkness during some student film, saying, 'this narrative has gone completely off the rails.'

The young man gazing back at Erik nods sagely-- sad, solemn, as if catching the thought. It is another version of Charles, pale like a starved hothouse organism, clad only in the sort of shapeless green-gray garment all too reminiscent of Lehnsherr's own unpleasant hospital stint. The other man is revelatory and antithetical, colored void projected on glass. The form recalls the childish awe and fear Erik experienced as a boy the first time he heard of spirits being trapped in mirrors. The strange shade raises one hand… not beckoning, but drawing the eye. The Sergeant can clearly make out smattering of bruises-- those blue-black violet blossoms of repeated IV application-- adorning pale wrists and elbows. This Charles, perhaps more impossible than any of the other iterations Erik has encountered, is discordantly and absurdly beautiful; at once an echo of some garland-laden Olympian and a pitiful asylum ghost. Frowning and anxious, this fellow phantom watches the shifting dynamics of the battle with teeth almost piercing bottom lip. He's younger, perhaps a few years Erik's junior, with eyes the same peerless blue of his more-familiar counterpart.

He locks gazes with Erik, just as helpless as their two demiurge reflections argue, the indigo female silhouette seemingly a pivot between their two dichotomies. Watching with a mystic's resigned understanding of the preordained, the younger Charles blurs as though seen through ancient, running glass. It's as if he's having trouble maintaining the light that projects his form, struggling with cohesion. Those well-known yet un-kissed lips are mouthing words, but Lehnsherr only catches a few of the shapes.

"change anything… consequence… salvage…"

Whatever else might have passed between the two etherial onlookers in truncated by a sudden fire-ball of pain reeling through Erik. He's not in the older man's body, precisely, but the reverberating agony in Magneto's neck does reach him in some way. It feels a bit like being slammed back into some not-quite-tailored mold and, whatever their relation to one another, Erik suddenly finds his vantage point is now that of the fallen warrior. Magneto has been shot-- through and through, from both Sergeant Lehnsherr's estimation and the diagnosis of the victim's questing fingers.

 

'That's what you get for being distracted in the middle of a firefight,' Lehnsherr chastises himself, though its unclear how he could have helped matters. Magneto was definitely engaged in the conflict, but the bullet went wild

(like another such projectile, blazing brilliant in the sunlight while missiles hovered like waiting vultures)

and was ceramic, at any rate. By sheer luck, its missed the artery, though it will still bleed like a son-of-a-bitch and be vulnerable to infection.

The vibrant, sapphire-scaled woman (whom Erik's unwitting host thinks of as 'Mystique') is now the only viable, fully mobile force on the battlefield. Yet, as Magneto rucks his own cape up to staunch the bleeding, it is Charles who once again proves himself to be the most indomitable of them all. His power inspires awe in Magneto, and disbelief in Erik-the-observer. These two halves are joined by an overlapping reverence (voracious and covetous, for the older version) and no small amount of helpless desire. He can't see what the professor is showing the viper-esque woman, but the frozen tableau of politicos is on display for all. Pride and fear surge in Magneto, laced with ironic humor; dear Xavier is providing a practical example of their gifts, in a manner just as terrifying (if not more so) than any physical destruction already wrought. His sweet fool-- does the professor think, no matter today's outcome, that their enemies will not shrink from and revile one so indistinguishable from a god?

 

Even Erik-- younger, but still no stranger to weaponization-- must acknowledge the bitter foreboding. He comes from an era of massive technological surveillance and data-mining at granular levels; of weapons whose fatality lingers long after deployment, and devastating resources barely leashed. The nightmare images of Charles, methodically vivisected in some clean-room or doped out of his mind in a government bunker, are all his own. The professor's civilian existence is as vulnerable as the man himself is gifted.

(even if you let me protect you, how could I honor that vow? everyone else-- everyone loved-- has suffered my failures and, already, so have you)

Whose thought is that? The alignment brings a whole new set of trepidations-- of empathy and contempt for his own familiar flaws. They
(I-- I, the singular Erik Lehnsherr)
are aware that-- whatever optimistic and genteel nonsense Charles may have professed-- Mystique is enough dissuaded from her goal to discard her weapon. Xavier may accuse Magneto of theft, but that's one charge he actually may have dodged. The little girl beneath those blue chameleon's scales? She will always, to some degree, be Charles' foundling.

Certainly, she sees her former leader much more clearly, now. Wounded, bound to the necessity of retreat, she never the less takes time to relieve Magneto of his last protection. The playground cat-call of 'He's all yours, Charles!' echoes in her wake. The fallen combatant tenses with an anxiety
(anticipation?)
the dreaming Erik does not quite understand, but he needn't wait long.

 

Once, Mama spoke to Erik (both of them?) of the language of angels-- the burning, indescribable script of G-d's first creations. The shape of your name, written over your heart, announced-- or so the stories said-- in heaven before you are born. Magneto 'hears' Charles speak to him, in the true and honest part of his mind that denies whatever ostentatious titles he may have assumed. And when he does, beneath the relief and unwilling sense of homecoming, that is always what he thinks of. The white-hot blaze of his neshama's lightning, where it strikes even the most obdurate of metals into malleable form.

(Erik.)

While the observer reels, amazed, Charles' will rushes into Magneto's mind, first laying flush with the native consciousness and then embracing that same anima. Within the timeless cerebral landscape, this meeting of identities is a sensual slide. One force is knowing, deliberately indulgent in its firm grip; the other quivering, exposed as nerves at once soothed and screaming with pleasure. Each touch is tender, for Charles has always known that gentleness is the worst punishment for Erik. To be cradled, held-- seduced into yielding. It is a seduction, for all the brief period it lasts in objective time. His soul-- which both versions of Lehnsherr typically refuse to acknowledge-- is handled with deft acumen. Despite all that has passed between them, despite Xavier's avowed and self-imposed exile, the professor still employs the greatest of care. Lehnsherr, Magneto, klein Erik of by-gone days-- all conquered in a matter of moments.

 

(And the watching Erik, who is surely more valid by virtue of living in a rational world? He seethes, covetous, as his presence goes wholly unnoticed. Possibly, it is because what he sees is only an echo. That strange contradiction of present/not-present; the overlap of projection as the rude stranger passes in front of the screen.)

Never the less, they are both divorced from control as the professor flexes Magneto's other sense, all consuming in his loving
(but grudging, oh yes. after all you have done to me, why can I not be shut of you?)
possession. Xavier knows full well the poisonous serpent he enfolds close to his heart.
But he does it anyway.

 

Then, in the same instantaneous flinch of a man shamed by his own exposure, Charles is gone. Magneto finds himself suddenly free, bereft and standing in the remnants of his bold assault. He waits, but Charles will not take him, instead welcoming Hank's support as he shakes his head sadly.

'You still won't do it, will you?' he thinks, knowing the other will hear.

'No, you damnable man!' is the silent reply. 'And you don't want me to, not really, so don't tempt me when you've already turned everything else upside down. I'm not sure which was more impressive-- your feat, or the breadth of stupidity behind it!'

'It was necessary.'

The only response to that is a wave of inarticulate, despairing exasperation-- so palpable its almost a physical push. Is Charles so eager to see him punished again, then?

'No.' Resigned, the bearer of every consequence Magneto disregards. 'G-d help me.'

"If you let them have me, I'm as good as dead," Magneto says aloud. Needling, always needling, wanting underneath the academic ivory to find honest skin and flame beneath.

 

"I know." Another push, sharper this time. The serrated edge is a hidden blessing-- it helps Erik differentiate himself from this violent reflection with his own sense of disgust. He watches, thinking of salted earth and poisoned wells, as the two men say goodbye.

[ * * * * * * * * *]

For a long time, Erik floats as his twin does, but in the opposite direction. Down from whatever fluid media of projection-- of vision or dream-- and back into the shallow pools of unconsciousness where lightning bolts of thought

('that g-ddamn driver… class tonight… Charles… too cold to be Iraq… where's the medic…')

disturb the stagnant waters but disappear just as quickly. What rouses him to full wakefulness is not necessarily the pain, but its degree. Though the agony roaring through his body is hardly something to dismiss, Erik's second coherent thought upon regaining consciousness is that it is less than he expected. His first thought is to grope for context, and to marvel that he's alive at all.

 

He crashed down the embankment-- he's almost certain of it. Westchester, April of 2014. He won't wake to the white and gray of a Landstuhl hospital room to take on the merciless march of rehab, re-acclimation, and detox all over again. All he needs to do is open his eyes. That's it-- prove to himself that he isn't lying, drenched in miserable sunlight and his body's protesting sweat, on his couch during the miserable two weeks of "sick days" that followed taking his last

(oh nonexistent G-d, grant me the miracle of self-restraint to _ensure_ it is my last…)

pain pill.

He'd heard the words in his own voice, so strangely accented; "If you let them have me, Charles, I'm as good as dead." Bagged and tagged, as they said in his Army days. If I die in a combat zone, box me up and ship me home.

Or could it be worse? Will he find himself on a cold slab wounded, not in hip and ankle, but in the neck-- an unwilling audience for his own dissection?

(and Herr Doktor would be so disappointed, so be robbed of that final desecration)

 

Erik's head is swimming, all darkness and crimson, aching from within and without. Lifting his eyelids seems a herculean task, and he's already wasting energy mouthing rough approximations of his serial number. He knows who is he is. He knows.

(Will they say he has killed Charles-- that he has let his dear one be crushed under steel and concrete? Or gloat, perhaps, that they did Xavier first, reducing the body Erik kissed and caressed-- the vessel for that brilliant mind-- to nothing but meat and organs and constituent folds of gray matter?
Probably the least damning thing they could tell him is that Charles never existed at all.)

 

Finally, Lehnsherr finds the strength to raise his head a little, lifting equally heavy lids to gaze up through the visor of his motorcycle helmet. The world above him is a blank canvas-- colorless gray dotted with faint gradations of half-formed rainclouds. A dark bird wings across this view, drawing the former sergeant's gaze down to the grass and bramble in which he and his surprisingly unshattered bike are sprawled. The bird caws at him, having alighted on a crooked wire fence-- it is unimpressed by the young man's disorientation, and quickly takes off again. Erik pays it no heed, having already begun a nervous catalogue of wounds. He can already feel two cranial impacts, though they will mercifully be only knots thanks to the helmet. The ground he's laying on insists on lurching erratically beneath him, though he's laying down and very obviously stationary. Mouth tasting of bile, even the diffuse pre-storm light feels as though it is digging little claws into the whites of his eyes. So he has a concussion. That much is obvious, though the extent of internal trauma to his brain is unclear and worrisome.

His hip is also broadcasting its own waves of pain, but at this point Lehnsherr is just grateful he doesn't seem to have broken (or rebroken) anything. There's a wet feeling on his good right leg but, though getting his gloves off requires a frankly pitiful struggle, his fingers find only a deep scrape on the calf. It's accompanied by the expected amount of blood; a little less, perhaps, for the protection of heavy and now-slashed jeans. It has a tacky texture, thankfully-- already clotting. Sitting all the way up is hideous, and Erik slumps forward heavily for a moment, thinking he must looks like some faceless, disjointed leather doll. Strings all cut, left to lie wherever he's fallen.

The images still imprinted behind his eyes vibrate in perfect synchronization with Erik's protesting body, a peel of lunatic bells. Thankfully, like such ringing tones, they are also dissipating. The finer points of the vision-- occultation-- are already fading from his consciousness, and Erik gives them up gratefully. It is enough to have the general outline of the experience and all the strange crimes it would lodge against him, sitting like a dark cavity in the back of his mind. Weighing, waiting; he already knows the right trigger-- just as with his old friend, PTSD-- will return the lurking intricacies and make him do penance again. The flash-bright etching of Charles trapped, physically endangered despite the intangible power Lehnsherr's waking mind refuses to grasp… that stays, of course.

 

"If you don't want him," Erik grits out, speaking to his reflection even as he drags himself towards the black bulk of his motorcycle, "there's no reason why I should have to pay for the fact you're an arrogant prick."

Wonderful. He's talking to himself-- resenting himself-- while he bleeds all over an empty field. Wouldn't dear ol' Doc just love to take a crack at analyzing that? Having reached the bike, he forgoes inspecting it for the greater priority of locating his saddlebag. Luckily, despite the crack in the casing, his cellphone is still functional. Barely looking, he taps 9-1-1 into the touch screen, and discovers that is pretty much where his good fortune ends.

"Fuck, fuck, fuck," Erik chants. There's a comfort in the profanity for, despite all the lost details, he knows it is not something his nonexistent twin would say. Zero bars-- a phone full of juice, which was working perfectly fine when he left Westchester, now useless during everyone's favorite In Case of Emergency. Picking the back panel open with him thumbnail, he takes out the sim card and blows on it gently but without much hope. When that fails, he resorts to the caveman method of shaking it, even though he damn well knows better. To add more 'Twilight Zone' vibes to the mix, the time display reads 10:07AM.

 

There's no way he's been out over twelve hours. He'd be sick as a dog if he added a chill April night to his already long list of bodily abuses. Going unseen by a passing vehicle-- even on a road like this one-- for that long also seems unlikely. Not to mention the fact that he probably would have pissed himself in the interim. Charming thought.

'Okay,' he thinks, shoving everything back in the saddlebag. 'Plan B'. Which is 'jack shit' right now. Phenomenally grateful he's already removed his helmet, Erik has to take a little break and vomit a-- mercifully small-- batch of stomach bile and half-digested pills off into the grass to his side. Another miserable sensation, but it at least proves his time-sense isn't completely shot. He took the ibuprofen before he started back from the mansion, so it makes sense it'd still be on his stomach.

'Oh, but you're lost in time and space,' he thinks ruefully. The accident happened near the hidden drive, where the road began winding through a wooded area. The asshole in the Trask van-- another reason to buy generic, thank you-- rammed the kids ahead of Lehnsherr, and they all went off the embankment, presumably into the creek below. Yet Erik awoke in this field. It looks like one he passed earlier, though there isn't a truly unique landmark or clue insight. The kids trapped in the truck aren't likely to have faired any better than Lehnsherr, wherever the hell they are. Concerned as he is-- not to mention dearly longing to introduce the van's driver to the nearest available hard surface-- Erik is barely in a position to help himself.

 

He feels… thin. Shaken in a way he'd love to put down to physical shock, though he can feel each minute segment of the sensation working within his soul. That sense of masquerade, of the seemingly mundane painted over some apocalyptic rift, is omnipresent. Bad enough that part of him already wants to panic, to let go in the maelstrom because this mirrors too many other

(the smell of gasoline and camel dung. Mama's sharp intake of breath just before impact, bizarrely combined with the muttering nonsense of Newcomb just as the world exploded…)

hard knocks he's had in his life. His breathing becomes shallow, lungs yanking in air at a staccato beat.

"Oh, no you don't," Lehnsherr grunts, clutching his head so that his nails pierce into his scalp. "Get it together, soldier." At his side, the motorcycle rolls somewhat jerkily and to the side-- some part has given way, no doubt. It's a good reminder, though. The pain is interfering with his cognition, which is unacceptable. He needs to set short-term goals. Triage. Or, as First Sergeant Munoz used to say, "Spit and duct tape for all but the dead."

 

Grabbing hold of the handle bars, Erik levers the bike up even as he uses it as a crutch for his own weak legs. That the damned thing is in one piece is nothing short of a miracle, an he's hardly surprised when it doesn't start. Not even a sputter. 'He's dead, Jim,' as Bones

(another Dr. McCoy)

of Star Trek would say. Associations, memories of a more peaceable time with his father. Sunday mornings eating overly sugared cereal, the potent smell of coffee as they watched Star Trek and laughed at some of the costumes. Quietly, though, giving Mama her one morning to sleep in.

Pursing his lips, Erik gazes across the still, empty field to where it merges with the featureless gray sky. More ominously, another line occurs to him-- 'It's life, but not as we know it.' Everything is silent, almost comatose, like a Godzilla movie miniature or those fake little towns arranged for toy trains. The hair on the back of his neck stands up as his body primes for an altercation. How much of this is real instinct, how much the head-injury and ubiquitous PTSD?

"You're not going to figure it out standing here like an ass," he tells himself. Even if the bike were fully functional, he'd be a fool to get astride it in this condition. The only success he'd likely have with that would just be to finish getting himself killed. Slowly, lurchingly, Lehnsherr begins walking the motorcycle towards the road, saddlebag hoisted on opposite shoulder in a pitiful attempt to help himself balance with the weight. Sweat rolls down the side of his neck but, when he wipes at it, his hand comes away red. Shuddering, he's relieved to find that cycle's remaining cracked mirror reflects only another relatively shallow scratch. Jury's still out as to how he managed the injury with un-pierced helmet, slashed jeans, and scuffed-up jacket.

 

The palpable sense of synchronicity is in no way dispelled by this latest discovery. He shouldn't be walking away from an accident like this, no matter the exact sequence of events. Many would argue Lehnsherr ought to be dead, possibly quite some time ago. Three strikes; car accident, IED, and now this. What is it about Edie's little boy that lets him keep scraping by? Always relatively unscathed. He's like a typhoid Mary-- the people around him certainly aren't immune to the chaos he brings.

(Charles, in the water, lifting and cajoling before he even knew Erik's face. Sprawled on the hot sand, half-sightless in his agony and as inappropriately beautiful as any saint depicted in the passion of martyrdom. And underneath the girders, trapped and yet more powerful than mere fundamental forces. Gravity, electricity.
Perception.

And who stands at his shoulder, responsible for such ills?)

 

Mama used to shake her head at Erik-- he was, she said, given to grand gestures. Bottled it all up and then BAM! A broken window, a shouting match, a fight at school. He stayed coiled, nursing lists of enemies and wrongs committed, willing to take the fall if it meant he'd bring his opponent down with him.

"What are you trying to prove?" his father would ask, and the only thing that proved was that he didn't get it. Jakob of sound numbers, of balances, stocks, and interest.

"I know you won't listen to me when I say this," Mama would tell Erik later. Outlined by illumination as she stood in the doorway of his dark room, or in the thick silence of a car-ride home after being sent to the principal's office. "I wouldn't have listened to me, either, when I was your age." And maybe, just maybe, he did hear her because she was willing to admit that. "Still, kaddishel, take my advice. Don't cut off your nose despite your face."

 

"Drama queen," Erik mocks himself presently, arduously turning the bulk of the bike parallel to the road. At least he doesn't wear a cape. The pounding in his head has reached an unpleasant level of familiarity-- namely, that other bodily protests can now make themselves known through the static. His left shoulder aches as though from impact, which is brilliant because his ankle already makes that his bad side. Favoring it by shifting his weight to the right means his already agonized hips will have their own complaint to lodge. As it is, the excruciating flare-up of any poorly chosen step fills the edges of his vision with the smudgy yellow cast of gas lanterns. For Erik, pain has never been the black of unconsciousness or the carmine glow of blood. Instead its a lurid yellow; the fuzzy glare of sleep deprivation or scraps of cloth steeped in cheap dye. The shade of the canary that flutters, helpless, in the mine. It smells like candy that has somehow spoiled to the point of welcoming maggots.

The former Sergeant casts a grim eye on both the empty stretch of road before him and the figure he can see all too clearly, even if only in his mind's eye. Much has left his conscious recollection-- he knows this, and wishes more would leave, still. Let that shattered, grassy stadium be as unpeopled and unremarkable as the horizon before him. Let everything be drained of portent, thus sparing him recursive questions. Spurious logic, endless loops, just like the kind you see in computer programming. He might, for example, wonder which came first: the events of the stadium, or of the beach? Are they both set in stone, or can the avoidance of one ensure the negation of the other? Has one dye been cast, as the warning for a darker tide? He wishes he could believe they were only subconscious reflections, as he once almost had himself convinced.

You can bring a whole damn database down, running algorithms like that.

 

There's nothing for it but to plod through the grass a safe distance from the road and hope to come across someone from town. Anyone passing through, really-- Lehnsherr will even take a Trask service van, at this point. He may be a short ride from the mansion-- not that there's any help there-- but distance changes dramatically the moment you find yourself on foot. Just putting one boot in front of the other takes effort, which means Erik's hardly going to be setting any land-speed records like this. Rummaging in his saddle back again, he double-checks the service on his phone. Still no dice, but maybe he'll reach a point where he can pick up a signal again. He'd just about kill to see any sort of medical professional right now; doctor, orderly, even the vaguely menacing nurses of Landstuhl.

 

 

Erik comes to know every footstep of that trek intimately, the ever-changing geometry of agony, twined with the distinct flavor of accumulating pain as the body strives to compensate. The physical therapist at the VA still threatens to smack Lehnsherr if he should see the soldier still babying ankle and hip on during the next visit, but it's all a lot of noise. They both know that, while Erik can do his best avoid conscious bias, the side of his body that took the burnt of the impact-- though thankfully not the searing heat-- from the blast will be out of sync for the rest of his life. He'd been slammed into a piece of sheet-metal debris from their armored vehicle, shielding him from fire but shattering bone. He's never figured out how it got between him and the blast center, but how the hell could you complain? The bones that didn't knit on their own were given metallic assistance, and they're all still rattling around in skin remarkably free of singe and blackened peeling. The exception, of course, is his left forearm. He'd held it up to blunt the collision, and it was that appendage that cooked against the very barrier that saved him, instead of his face. Another lucky break, which his ex-Army pals mention now and again-- "Hey, Lehnsherr, it might have improved that fucking nose of yours"-- and that's okay.
When they don't remind you you're lucky, it means you really have run out.

 

Through this haze of negative sensory input and the vertiginous awareness of his own head injury, Erik gradually becomes aware that something else is wrong. Though he didn't take notice in excruciating detail during his first ride through, and he's hardly in the best shape for observation now, he's still quickly certain that the terrain is no longer just as it was before. The wooded areas, so unkempt and clustered on his initial drive, now seem far more sparse and separate from one another. It's too late by the time he thinks to look for the lonely county highway sign, but the abandoned sheds also seem to be engaged in this subtle shell game. There are fewer of them than he remembers; their paint seems faintly brighter or less peeled, and some of them exist now in fields he is certain were empty the first time he passed.

He has a concussion and he's hardly a local but, when Lehnsherr realizes he also hasn't caught a glimpse of the Trask Industries billboard, he's disoriented enough to fish his compass out from the depths of his saddle-bag. Not something that gets a regular workout in the civilian world, but he's damn glad he has it now. Especially considering the fact his cellphone is still fruitlessly searching for a signal, the spiraling icon beside grayed-out bars prompting him to turn it off. Battery life, my good soldier-- all the tech in the world is no good to you if its dead. The compass, dependent only on omnipresent magnetism, confirms he's headed in the right direction.

"Alright," Erik says, for no reason other than to hear the sound of his own voice. It sounds raspy, almost drunk, and he feels like he's being ferried around by a bunch of Navy Seamen who don't know which end is up. Then, once more, under his breath: "Alright."

He has to lean in heavily-- almost tipping both himself and the bike over-- as he tackles an embarrassingly gradual incline. Reaching the crest ought to feel like an accomplishment, but it does nothing for his breathing or his balance.

 

Or, for that matter, his state of mind.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Before all of this-- the injury, the marketplace, even the Army itself-- Erik has always been willing to bank on the notion that, if you were worried about your mental state, then your sanity was probably still intact. It was a neat little brush-off, almost a catechism, for a young century already used to an urban dictionary full of social buzzwords and pop-psychology slang.

This assurance lasted through his teen years but, like many of the tenuous structures Erik had maintained since his mother's death, it didn't see him past twenty-one. He remembers visiting his father in hospice, in those final days when the big "C" had been razing unchecked through Jakob Lehnsherr's body. It had spread like wildfire in the end, a no-holds-barred campaign of mutual assured destruction. The visits were always excruciating, and swamped with guilt that he found them so when it was his father-- his own father!-- who was dying by inches. Wasting and shrinking, pumped full of meds the side effects of which where no longer a concern, because this really was the end.

On bad days, when the pain and the substances fighting it coalesced into a sort of one-way mirror, Erik had seen a particular sort of look in his father's eyes that had shaken his notions of the extent to which the body might betray and warp the perceptions of the mind. Worse still had been some of the other residents on the ward. Whatever their particular ailment had been-- disease, age, dementia-- it was really all a symptom of one fact: life is terminal. There was a wildness that flickered, banked but not tamed, behind their eyes. As if all the fight left in them had turned guerrilla; taken to hiding and laying in wait. It seemed they knew something vital had been lost but, in the very act of reaching for it, were forced to forget what that was.

 

And Erik Lehnsherr-- very soon the only Lehnsherr-- had, for all his claims of wanting to prevent civilian bloodshed, had participated in humanity's first and most triumphant of all lunacies: war. He'd seen that same look come over the faces of soldiers and refugees. What is this life I have found myself in, and where is the path back to what was? There were, too, those amongst the commanders and contractors who had given up on any sort of reintegration; who knew they were crazy, and kept on trucking.

Now, looking down at a landscape whose empirical reality refuses to align with known facts, the former Sergeant can't help but wonder if this is the last step. That moment when fact and sentience part ways.

 

The mansion sits complacently in the midst of its green, utterly unobstructed by the ranks of trees and litter of deadfall which shrouded it completely just a short time ago. The stone wall has still seen better days-- particularly the portion of it closest to Erik's current vantage point-- but it is far more intact than the mere traces he'd encountered. Every one of these observations seeps into the soldier's consciousness peripherally, like orders barked over the sound and hail of live fire. There is one thing and one thing only in the forefront-- in the churning and grasping quagmire-- of his mind.

There, to the east, is a satellite dish which was not-- which never could have been-- a part of the earlier scene.

 

To the credit of his training-- and his own distant amazement-- Lehnsherr's body has not frozen, has not skipped and halted like a scratched CD, the way his thoughts have. This latest assault on rationality does not impact his short term goals and so, slowly, swaying with agony-riddled strain, his limbs have simply continued forward. The motion has all the sense and grace of a poorly made automaton, but there it is. It's a relief to know there's something besides the bedrock of terror in him, that backwards grasping for something he had taken for granted moments before. His own eyes must look wild, lost; those same jungle eyes, roving senselessly in the leafy, nightmare dark. Is it a blessing that there's no one around to see him, if that also means his perceptions cannot be confirmed or denied?

This part of the property was never meant for actual fortification. The wall is low, pastoral, harkening back to the rolling moors of fiefdoms the original builders no doubt enjoyed imagining. Thankfully, despite the sudden and miraculous improvement of its condition, the stonework still has a sizable break nearby, and Erik takes full advantage of it. Maneuvering the Kawasaki through the point of ingress isn't easy, involving all the torque of all upper body muscles, which he will doubtless pay for later. To say nothing of the present discomfort, and the significant cluster of fuzzy black stars that mar his vision. He doesn't think he can make it all the way to the drive, though, and this is the most direct path back to known territory. When he takes a brief breather, his phone barely powers back up. Not a signal in sight.

 

The smart-phone screen is dimming, unhelpfully reflecting back the mottled gray sky, when Erik once more feels something wet trickling down his neck. The anxious, impotent blaze of anger that tries to fire in his gut is dampened not by his discovery that it isn't blood, but by the sheer exhaustions that chases it. Another drop of liquid hits his nose, then two more on his cellphone case.
No, not blood-- rain.

Though he tries to pick up the pace, it seems like Lehnsherr is just the passive-aggressive Universe's whipping-boy today. He's almost never one for self pity-- it makes him feel cold, grimy, as though gazes which consider themselves superior are watching his pain and congratulating themselves. But fuck it all to hell and gone, no one is gonna claim he's on a winning streak right now.

A few drops quickly multiply into a steady sprinkle. A clap of thunder sounds, so sudden and unexpected that Erik instinctively reaches for his sidearm. It isn't there, of course, and the next few tolls of heavenly fury echo even more loudly off that large, impossible satellite dish. His blood is up and pumping; ACTH, epinephrine, and cortisol cascading flowing through exhausted limbs until he feels like he's running on bottled lightning, his bones itching to leap from his skin. For once, its a half-way appropriate response, but the wild laughter it stirs in him is not healthy at all. He's almost trotting now, pulling the bike along, adrenaline blunting some of the pain.

Head down, head down now, even when lightning lashes its thin whip across the sky near the satellite dish. Another memory wants to come, associated with that metal hulk, but Lehnsherr is in such a state that he isn't anywhere near as vulnerable as he was earlier. By the time he reaches the stone balustrades arrayed around the gardens, it is absolutely pouring. Jeans already soaked through, he props the motorcycle up at the bottom of the steps, now looking for shelter as much as anything else. At least the brickwork on this side of the house creates a little overhang near the windows. Dully, he thinks he may be near the library, but he's too busy digging for his phone again to be sure.
He rolls the dice and powers it up.

 

Snake eyes; still no signal. Erik utters an inarticulate howl of rage, beyond words or even emphatic invective. Whirling towards the stone wall of the house, he has no conscious idea of what self-destructive outlet his body might intend. Instead, his gaze falls on the window, and the blocks of his fists once more become hands that reach, almost prayerfully, to see if it can be jimmied from the outside like the front door. The first try is a bust, but his hands are wet. Closing his eyes, forcing the anger out and away in the same manner a star spews forth radiation

(go, go-- if emotion is kinetic energy then collect somewhere *else*…)

he wipes his hands on the one dry portion of his shirt and tries again.

 

The pane and its casement slide up, easy as anything, as though someone just let a breeze in yesterday. Thank G-d it doesn't open slant-wise, or from the top. Lehnsherr is a tall man, but he's lean and fairly flexible despite the screaming fabric of his form, and the window is antiquated. There isn't even a screen. It's not graceful, and he nearly careens flat on his face, but he still gets in. Out of the wind and rain, gasping for breath, and searching for something to steady himself against. Thunder sounds again, rattling his improvised entryway, and Lehnsherr is vaguely aware of a radiator nearby. One that is warm. Frowning, he fumbles for the paneled wall, and is even more desperately in need of its support a moment later.

 

"Really, Erik--"

He knows that voice. His mind, strategic as ever, registers the words being spoken even as his ear lingers lovingly over timbre and cadence. That particular countertenor, impossible to reproduce. The tip of a brown Oxford shoe enters view, but at the at the wrong height. It is followed shortly by the gleam of light against a wheel-spoke.

"--I don't think matters have deteriorated to the point of breaking and--"

By this time, the entire wheelchair and its occupant are framed in the threshold, and Erik feels the kind of giddy, heartbroken exaltation he has previously only seen second-hand. Men and women-- fellow soldiers-- coming home from deployment to see faces more dear to them than their own lives. Familiar, affectionate, but subtly altered. Parents a little older, spouse with a new hairstyle, children inching upwards or slightly more steady on coltish legs. Erik had been friendly with a Comm Tech who was a mother of two-- she said that last one was always the worst. Everyone knew time was a commodity-- or they thought they knew, until those faces showed you it had been a luxury all along.

 

Charles Xavier is there in the doorway, a real being, alive, staring at Erik with only slightly less shock than Lehnsherr himself is experiencing. Only beyond that surprise, betrayed only in the furrow of brow, is a hesitancy. Perhaps, indeed, for both of them. The deep yet unfocused concernation of a man returning home to find all the mirrors and paintings just slightly askew.

A force overtakes Lehnsherr then, the way a massive taifu might lift a boat until it seems the swell is level ocean, so large and unstoppable is it when compared with a simple wave. It isn't actively painful, nor is it pleasant. For just a sliver of an instant, the 'touch' is not a touch at all, but a clinical handling. Then, just as quickly, the distance and ambiguity of the invading identity evaporate like frost from an unfairly bitten vine. In its wake and flowering Erik knows-- beyond sanity, modernity, or doubt-- exactly whose psyche has suddenly twined about his own.

He'd dreamt this just a short time ago, and been jealous. It's a dull realization, and one that doesn't last. The current of his own mind has been thing unknown to him until it was taken-- gently, so gently-- entirely out of his hands. For a moment, nothing hurts; he is engrossed in the strange sense of rapport, of knowing that is not full knowing but rather the wetting of appetite for deep regard.

(so young, so very different, yet the same-- oh!)
--as if tracing a particularly favored curve of sculpture--
(very much the same…)

 

Later, embarrassed in retrospect as he cannot be in the glory of the moment, Lehnsherr will be mortified by how quickly and guilelessly he… opens to Charles. That's the only way to put it. His will has no shape here, a lack of muscle in his own mind rather than anything caused by Xavier. Yet, fumbling, blissful, he yields just as his doppelganger did-- welcoming and welcomed. It is so poignant he feels a stab of atavistic jealousy, wondering if all touched by Charles eventually feel this way, though he knows immediately that the notion is foolish.

There's a glow of affectionate humor, unfamiliar and surprising to the psyche projecting it. Not words, though Erik's mind puts them that way. A tangle, only half-intended for his experience.

(it's you, my unknown friend. stranger/mirror/bright shadow. you deserve gentleness as much as he does and)
--far lower, a whisper of a feeling--
(… and my weaknesses are always the same…)

 

He's gone in the next moment; too instantaneous to be a retreat, and as incongruous as the flaming bush which refused to burn. Unaccountably, Erik feels he must have been found wanting. A subvocal murmur escapes him-- something between a grunt and a desperate bid for air. Which is good, because he's pretty sure the only intelligible thing ready to come out of his mouth right now is, 'come back'. (Or worse: 'G-d, do that again'.)

Aloud, the man Lehnsherr has been searching for asks, "How on earth did you get here?"

"Charles--" Erik manages, interrupted either by the roar of thunder, or that of his own overtaxed form. The world tints gray, brown, cadmium yellow-- a sickening parade. in Inspite of his pride, their first meeting ends just as he'd known it would.

 

Erik takes two steps towards Charles and sinks to his knees.

 

.